5 Tips to Keep Your Theory Instruction Organized All Year Long


This guest post by Dr. Kathy Rabago features a sure-fire way to keep your theory instruction organized. I'm using her PianoProgram.com in my studio and it's clear that her "labor of love" is a powerful and comprehensive instructional tool. It may be exactly what you are looking for in your studio as a "tidy teacher." Read on to learn more AND to sign up for Kathy's VERY generous giveaway! -Leila

Organization...it makes our lives so much easier doesn’t it?I know I can create a calm atmosphere in my own house when everyone knows where their clothes and shoes are, when pantry goods are organized within arm’s reach for easy recipe following, and when family calendars are synced to include everyone’s activities.It just makes the day run better doesn’t it?

I need that same organization in my piano teaching, especially when it comes to academic topics such as music theory.We can all agree that music theory is important to include in piano lessons.However, sometimes our ideas and thoughts about teaching music theory can become jumbled in the chaos of the everything else that is piano teaching.It’s easy to get overwhelmed!

When we think about a child’s potential 12-13 years of study with us during the pre-college stage, there’s a lot of music theory knowledge that can be covered during those 12 years.

Here are 5 tips to keep you organized in teaching music theory, and give you peace of mind that all of your students are not only learning what they need to know, but doing so in a way that goes above and beyond a traditional piano lesson. 

#1 Curriculum

Give yourself a curriculum that will grow with your student as they progress.

The majority of us are pre-college teachers, meaning we are teaching any child within the K-12 range.That’s quite a responsibility!One of our jobs, as pre-college teachers, is to prepare our students for a musical life.Now notice, I didn’t say musical career, but rather a musical life.Some of our students very may go on and study music in college and beyond, but the majority of our students will integrate music into their lives hopefully for as long as they want to.


What does this mean from a music theory standpoint?Well, for our students entering into a degree in music, we want to make sure that they are prepared.Nothing makes a heart beat faster than walking into a freshmen level university music theory class and spending the entire hour in confusion.Some of us may have been in that position when we started college!

We want to prepare our students, and make sure that they walk into a college classroom ready to build upon the skills that you’ve already taught them.For our students who only study with us for a few years, or who study with us all the way through 12th grade but venture into another career, music theory is still extremely important!

Understanding music theory will help them understand what they are learning when they play the piano.Music Theory brings an ‘aha’ moment to understanding music. 

This brings us back to a curriculum.If our goal is to prepare students for any future in music, then we have to work up to having them understand first semester college level theory by the time they graduate high school.

There are many ways of breaking up the concepts of music theory into organized step by step chunks.In my music theory course, Piano Program, I decided to use the curriculum set by the Texas Music Teachers’ Association.I did this not only because my students reside in Texas (and many take the state theory test), but also because the curriculum is very logical.I love the way it is laid out, and builds upon itself year by year. 

Follow this link for the complete curriculum content.

#2 Checklist

Assign a checklist to each student with theory concepts that need to be covered that year.

OK, so we have a curriculum, now what?How do we implement it into lessons?That’s where organization comes into play!

There are only so many piano lessons in a school year, and it’s imperative (in my eyes) to keep music theory at a forefront in lessons so that understanding music goes hand in hand with performing music.But how do we not let it slip?After all, there are many other things that we also cover in lessons – repertoire, etudes, technique, improvisation, composition, off bench activities….. The list goes on and on!

My solution is a printed checklist for each student.Once I assign a level to a student, they are given a printed checklist of what they will be covering over the year.The checklist goes in their binder, and you guessed it – we check items off over the year as them complete them.


Also, in my online music theory course, Piano Program, each student is given a login.These separate logins allow them to click a button at the end of each online lessons that says “I have completed this lesson.”There’s something wonderful about seeing this checked, and looking at progress the next time they log in. 


#3 Flexibility

Determine when the assignments will be completed--in a lesson, at home, or lab time?

I get it – I’m a piano teacher too – sometimes lessons don’t go as planned!Sometimes we are dealing with tired students, or students who can’t focus.Sometimes we are dealing with students who need a 45-minute lesson but they can only take 30 minutes.Sometimes we have students that have the luxury of taking an entire 60-minute lesson including lab time.All of us have different situations with our students, so as teacher, we need f.l.e.x.i.b.i.l.i.t.y.

Depending on my students’ situation, I either assign music theory to be done at home, in the lesson, or during lab time.Since my music theory course is online, this works ALL three ways, which is magical for me as a teacher.My students who take lab time and are overwhelmed with other activities (ballet/soccer/art/gymnastics anyone?) use their lab time to login to the program, watch the videos, do the interactive exercises, and fill out their workbooks.Then I do a quick check during lessons.We have a dedicated computer at my studio just for this. 

For my dedicated students, who complete exactly what I tell them to do during the week, they do their theory at home.Again, with an online access, they get to login on their home computers or tablets, watch the videos, do the interactive assignments, and fill out their workbooks.Bonus – since the videos explain EVERY music theory concept for their level, I don’t need to spend lesson time explaining things.Win-win.


And finally, for my students who only take a private lesson and who often forget to do their theory at home, we spend lesson time watch the videos and completing the exercise.Yes, this takes up lesson time but, it gives me as a teacher a little breather having a video play the concepts while I sip on my bottle of water.Flexibility really is key in working with all of your students. 

#4 Online Resources

Use resources at your fingertips – no more lost books!

Books, books and more books!I bet none of us as piano teacher ever deal with lost books, or books left at home, right?Raises hand.I certainly do.

Having printable PDFs of theory assignments available online that I can access at any time is a lifesaver for me.If a student forgets their workbook, or the dog ate a page, I can login to my website and print out any assignment for any student.

I took all of my videos and worksheets that I’ve created for levels 1-8 and put them all on my website on a searchable database that I call a Music Theory Resource Page at https://www.pianoprogram.com/all/.I can easily search by topic or level to find what a student needs. 

Also, with transfer students whose skills may be different from the way I teach, I can pick and choose what assignments to assign him/her from the Music Theory Resource page.


#5 Discuss and Integrate

Don’t repeat concepts over and over – discuss for deeper exploration.

My last tip in tidying up your theory instruction is to discuss instead of drill.I created my Music Theory courses on Piano Program because I wanted to go beyond the day-to-day sometimes mundane topic of teaching music theory.I wanted music theory to come to life!

I didn’t want to just explain intervals over and over again to different students, I wanted them to see a Major 3rd or a Minor 3rd in their music and begin to realize how different the sound was, and why the composer put it there, etc.

Handing off my music theory instruction to the videos that I’ve created at Piano Program has open that door to freedom.Now instead of drilling, I’m discussing concepts with students.This is leading to more and more wonderful things in my own teaching – more time, more energy, & more ‘aha’ moments from students.

-Dr. Kathy Rabago

Important info about PianoProgram.com

A studio membership gives you access to all the Music Theory Courses, PDF worksheets, instructional videos, and interactive exercises.  Use with all of your students during your lab time or lesson time.  As a bonus, you may add 20 of your students to have individual access to a level to work on at home.

Membership is $20/month (that’s only $1 per month per student!) or $200/year (2 months free) and new content will be added monthly.  If you don’t want the entire membership, you can purchase each Music Theory level separately for $37/year*.

Additional courses may be purchased separately for a one time fee and you can cancel your account anytime.


Music Theory Resource Page from Velocity Music Academy on Vimeo.

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